The ‘Next Man Up’ Mentality Won’t Save Sports

Athletes are already getting sick with COVID — but the powers that be still think a few replacement players can fix a disaster in the making

It almost sounds like a sick joke: Within days of the first day of baseball, a cascade of infection runs through the Miami Marlins clubhouse, leaving 17 people (and counting) testing positive for COVID-19. 

The Marlins are the worst team in baseball, so there’s something almost cosmically absurd about this sickness striking such a poorly run organization. But it’s real, and 15 players are sidelined because of it (as are two coaches). The team even put dozens of other people at risk when it traveled to Philadelphia to play against the Phillies despite knowing four people were confirmed with COVID at the time. (Thankfully, that squad remains illness-free.) 

Given the wide range of COVID outcomes, it’s possible that everyone will escape without lasting symptoms. Then again, it’s terrifying to think of the livelihoods at risk when you consider the lifelong lung damage that some COVID survivors must carry. 

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, for one, didn’t seem too startled about the whole thing in the aftermath. “I don’t put this in the nightmare category,” Manfred said in an MLB Network interview. “It’s not a positive thing, but I don’t see it as a nightmare. … That’s why we have the expanded rosters. That’s why we have the pool of additional players.”

Manfred went on to claim that the “first concern” is the health of players, employers and their families. But his immediate pivot to mentioning replacement players is about as predictable as it is misguided — an obvious tell for the agenda of a sports commissioner and the owners he represents. 

When asked about the potential criteria for canceling the baseball season, Manfred deflected, noting that a team losing enough players to become “completely noncompetitive” could warrant “thinking about making a change.” For now, baseball will go on, with “taxi squad” replacement players waiting in the wings if a ballplayer turns up with a fever on gameday. 

Meanwhile, we’re headed back into basketball, with resumption of the NBA schedule on July 30th (and the playoffs shortly after that). The NFL, too, is chomping at the bit to kick off its season in September without disastrous results. 

Those leagues have replacement players, too, all waiting for a chance to assume the spotlight. This year is, in a sense, the ultimate test of the lionized “next man up” mentality — that trait so celebrated in Rudy, and the reason why Bill Belichick gets rock-hard when he sees a third-string running back catching a touchdown. It’s the thing every high-school athlete fetishizes while watching the starters from the bench. And in the time of COVID, it takes on a whole new edge — there’s more on the line, and more to prove in a historic moment. 

All these plans and machinations make the forward march of sports feel a little inevitable. But must it really go on, given the context of the world at hand? For so much of American history, the unstoppable momentum of our sports has symbolized something about our inherent strength and greatness. Now, in what is objectively a dogshit year for the theory of American Exceptionalism, it feels weird to rally around the normalcy of grown men playing with balls while brushing off the risk of sickness by noting there are, uhm, replacement players available just in case. 

The fear is palpable, and has been for a while. Fifteen players have so far decided to sit out the baseball season, including Rockies pitcher Tim Collins, who made his decision after the Marlins outbreak. A dozen NFL players are already sitting out, with more expected to announce before now and the August 3rd deadline. Ten NBA players, including stars like DeAndre Jordan (who contracted COVID) and Victor Oladipo, will not return for the remainder of the season. 

Maybe they’re the ones with wisdom right now. After all, while the NBA is being strict by implementing “the bubble” for teams, players and their families, the other leagues are letting players and staff do, well, whatever they want. The Marlins reportedly got sick en masse after a night out in Atlanta. And medical experts are still expressing concerns that adding replacement players to rosters are expanding the web of people who can get infected — or transmit the infection to others. The onus still falls on individuals, and individual teams, to make the ethical calls. The Marlins failed, casting serious doubt on the whole damn thing. 

It’s clear now that the “next man up” mentality can’t save sports any more than tossing in additional rats can save a busted lab experiment. That analogy might sound a little callous, but doesn’t it kind of feel like some sort of dark test, anyway? We live in a world where half a baseball team getting decimated by a novel virus isn’t enough to trigger anything other than the postponing of a few games. How much fresh meat do we want to use? This doesn’t even consider the more vulnerable, lower-paid support staff that’s interacting with players and staff regularly — what of their risk?

All these questions are hard to parse when that first long drag of sports feels like a legitimate balm against the trauma and anxiety of 2020. We were always going to be left with an incomplete product — the lack of fans, the messed-up rosters and cancelled games all make a difference. But the sickness spreading around our most beloved sports leagues is a warning of much worse to come if we commit to the arrogance of thinking we can merely replace sick players with healthy ones and move on. (There is also something obscene about Derek Jeter and the fucking Marlins getting daily COVID testing despite vast swaths of the country being lost without fast and reliable testing.) 

I get it. The sports-industrial complex is awaking from its unexpected slumber. Sports is good for morale, for big business and for every fan desperate to feel something other than dread again. But I’m not sure whether there’s anything that can truly save sports in 2020, not when people — athletes or otherwise — are getting bolder with their risk-taking with each passing day. Cases continue to surge in the U.S., and it’s hard to imagine how COVID won’t spread like wildfire in sports where people are damn near cheek-to-cheek on the field, and completely unrestricted in their lifestyles off it. 

What we’re witnessing is an unparalleled viral outbreak in sports, and there’s a lot of people under the gun. The lessons that unfold from here on out will tell us more about the American character than any battle on a court will.